1868 was the first year of Confederation, and Canada was taking its first steps as a nation. New railways and steamers on Lake Ontario transported a flood of new immigrants to the bustling towns on the shores of the lake.
The 1871 consensus recorded 84% of the immigration population came from the British Isles and Northern Europe. With their skills, they set up shop and created new industries, and eventually Canada became a world leader in many of these industries.
Many small towns had dominant industries that manufactured and exported their products. Towns along the shores of Lake Ontario from Kingston to Toronto prospered from single manufacturers. The Massey Family in Newcastle built world class farm implements, and its neighbour, Bowmanville was the home of the Dominion Organ and Piano Company, which exported pianos around the world. The company employed over two hundred employees in a large manufacturing facility on Temperance Street.
This was not the only Ontario town with a major piano manufacture business, and one of the most notable was the Bell Piano and Organ Company in Guelph. Another one was the Sherlock-Manning Company, successor to W. Doherty Piano and Organ Company in Clinton. They built a new factory in 1900, and employed one hundred and eighty staff. Heintzman and Company set up shop in Toronto in 1860, and in 1888 they opened a new factory on King Street, producing a thousand pianos a year.
Since Confederation a total of two hundred and forty companies have made pianos in Canada, from single craftsmen to one hundred and fifty individual manufacturers.
How did Canada become a world leader in pianos? The many woods used were readily available from the forests close to the towns. The railways transported the lumber to the factory and the craftsmen turned the lumber into beautiful instruments which were exported around the world.
Before the radio, TV and the Internet, Victorian families and friends would gather in the front parlour for an evening of music played on a piano by a daughter. Young women were encouraged to learn to play socially as this was a sign of culture and status in middle class homes. The ability to play the piano was considered very attractive and added to a woman’s marriageability prospects.
A favourite form of music was playing Four-Hand Piano music in which two players would sit side by side at a single piano. This was featured in the current PBS British TV Drama ‘Queen Victoria,’ when she and her (then) future husband, Prince Albert, played together during their courtship. Queen Victoria purchased several Canadian pianos for the royal palaces.
This was all about to change, however. With many social changes in the 20th century, two World Wars, the Great Depression and the introdcution of the radio, piano manufacturing was dealt a series of death blows. In the short period from 1900 to the 1940s many of our piano manufactures closed up shop due to lack of sales.
The Dominion Piano Company was forced into bankruptcy in 1936 and the company’s building, the pride of Bowmanville, was demolished. The company had been founded in 1870 in Oshawa but as business grew they moved to Bowmanville in 1875 producing organs. In 1879 they entered the piano market. New factory buildings were added and by 1910, 80,000 instruments had been produced with many overseas branch outlets.
Dominion met customer demands, from square pianos and uprights, player pianos (c1920s) and high-quality gramophones (c1900s). These kept the company in business, but the impact of radios in the 1920s and the Wall Street crash saw sales drop and eventually lead to their demise.
This story was echoed with other manufacturers. A few were able to make it to the 1980s, but when the electronic keyboard was introduced and favoured by the pop music industry, the final chapter was written for the Canadian piano-making industry. In January, 1988, the assets of the Sherlock-Manning Piano Company went under the auction hammer and the last Canadian manufacturer was closed, ending an era of Canadian piano production.
Today many examples of pianos are still being played or are on display, some well over a hundred years old. They are a testimony to a bygone time of handmade instruments and the enduring pride of craftmanship.
Bowmanville Museum has a collection of 24 pianos made by the Dominion Piano Company.